In his new book, "Dead Famous," which was published in Hebrew by Yedioth Ahronoth, British comedian and writer Ben Elton ("Popcorn") tears reality shows to shreds. The book describes a detective who is investigating a case of murder that took place in a house with dozens of cameras recording people as though they were fish in an aquarium (which is the illustration on the book jacket). The elderly detective is turned off by the new industry with which he must become familiar. Of what awaits him, he comments that it will be an opportunity to spend an evening watching someone you don't know, asked to leave a house where you have never been, by a group of people you have never met and about whom you won't ever hear again. He wonders whether, when the ancient Greeks laid the cornerstones of Western civilization, they imagined such a scenario.
Although Yaki Jacques, who managed the YES Real satellite channel, is a big fan of the genre, he understands the writer and his hero. "In Britain they've gone completely crazy," he says. "A flood wiped out an entire village in the north of the country, but on that same day the news broadcast opened with the news that Nadia had won on `Big Brother' (a reality series that influenced Israel's `Project Y')."
He says that the American version of the program broke all records for repulsiveness. In the installment "DNA," for example, two participants were informed of the fact that they were children of the same father. In another installment, "X Factor," participants in the program were brought together with their old flames. "I couldn't believe how low they were willing to stoop," says Jacques. "But when I saw how apathetic the participants were to the amazing news about the family tie between them, I said to myself, `They deserve it.'"
Jacques also understands Garry Shandling, who hosted the Emmy Awards ceremony on September 19 and said that as a spectator he was happy to watch commercials, during which he could finally see "a plot and professional actors." "I can understand why actors are worried," admits Jacques. "The status the genre has attained is frightening. The television networks' senior executives like it because it brings in ratings for less money. Exceptions are series such as `Survival,' with $1 million invested in each installment, and `America's Next Top Model' (which was broadcast on Israel's Channel 3 up until two weeks ago) - $750,000 per installment. All the other series cost much less. For the sake of comparison, the cost of an episode in an average drama series comes to $2 million."
The man on the street instead of stars
Television executives have another reason for liking the reality trend - it has destroyed the star system. In the past, stars of successful television series demanded their share from the large networks, and got it. No longer. Those days have been replaced by a new "reality."
"Les Moonves, the president of CBS, recently fired two stars of `CSI' (Crime Scene Investigation, the network's flagship drama, which has already given rise to two spinoff series, in Miami and New York), who demanded a raise," says Jacques. "The actors were shocked by this move, apologized and immediately changed their minds. Now actors such as the stars of `Everybody Loves Raymond,' the network's top comedy, will be afraid to present an ultimatum as they have done in the past. Jerry Zucker, the head of NBC, who was himself held hostage by the stars of `Friends' and `Frasier' - and is a man who rarely has a good word to say about his competitors - said of Moonves that he has never been prouder of him than on that day."
Despite everything, the attitude of the network executives - and particularly Moonves - to the genre seems to be ambivalent. In an installment of "The Practice," which was recently broadcast on Channel 2, one character demanded her own reality show, while making threats on the life of Moonves, who played himself in a guest appearance.
110 new series
Financial considerations can also work to the detriment of the genre and prevent it from dominating the screen. "Reality is called `a wave,' and as such it is destined to break," says Jacques. "It will return to its natural place. The large networks won't have any reason to broadcast only reality shows, because they have no value as reruns and in syndication (reruns of programs on satellite channels). The trend in recent years is for each network to have a hit series from a high-class rather than a low-class genre."
Jacques says that this is causing concern to the executives of the Fox network - which is responsible for "Paradise Hotel," "Joe Millionaire" and "Playing It Straight." With the exception of "American Idol" (the American version of the Israeli program "Kokhav Nolad" (A Star is Born), which is a leading mainstream program, and "The Swan," which was a hit despite its extreme nature - it has no high caliber programs in the genre, such as "The Apprentice" (which will soon be shown on Channel 10). "It has mainly sleazy programs, whose time has passed," he says.
Of the 32 new programs this season in the United States, eight are reality programs. Perhaps that means that the day when the genre will find its natural place is still a long way off?
Jacques: "There are many more than eight shows. Including the cable shows and those imported to the United States, there are 110 new reality series in all. That's also because the Americans use a broad definition of reality. I would define "Growing Up Gotti" and "The Osbournes" (series which follow famous people in their daily lives) as docu-soap. We had freedom to choose materials and to collect 200 tapes of reality series on our channel, even from New Zealand, and we had good responses. But we don't want too much reality either, we don't plan to air the channel again. We want to include the series on other channels on a weekly, rather than a daily, basis." In two weeks' time, instead of Yes Real, a new channel, Yes Weekend, is scheduled to be launched. It will broadcast drama, sitcoms and reality on the weekends.
Is that because by broadcasting daily, in a short period of time you ran through series that could have attracted an audience for months?
"No, part of the success of the channel was the daily broadcasting, which aroused a great deal of interest abroad, because there it isn't customary."
But apparently the daily broadcasts were damaging to the channel: At a certain stage it broadcast only bizarre reality shows such as "Mad Mad House," in which the participants have to manage to live together with a witch, a vampire and a prehistoric man; and "My Big Fat Fiance," which combined actors with participants who didn't know that the others were actors. "That was on of the most popular weekly programs of the network that broadcast it in the United States, and we missed out with it because it was broadcast on Rosh Hashanah," says Jacques. "The peak viewing times, with `Survival' and `Forever Eden,' had passed. When a popular series ends, there's always a drop in viewing at the channel."
The next generation
How did the idea come up for a channel devoted entirely to reality shows? Jacques says "It all began with Summer Nights, a temporary channel that aired sitcoms, films and reality shows. We got great reactions to `The Amazing Race.' Before that, nobody had tried to broadcast reality shows on a daily basis."
In the United States, the Fox network is supposed to introduce a reality channel, and an attempt is being made to launch another channel, which is being delayed for now - Reality Central or Reality 24/7, which was supposed to begin early in 2004. The channel is a joint initiative of Larry Namer, the founder of the E! entertainment channel, and Blake Mycoskie, who made it to third place with his sister in `The Amazing Race.' They raised $500,000 from winners of other reality shows, including the winners of `Survival,' and the two winning teams from `The Amazing Race.' Richard Hatch, the first winner of `Survival,' agreed to publicize the channel.
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